Words of Wonder and Warning – December 30, 2007
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 2:21-35
December 30, 2007
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that most of the prophecies of the coming Messiah were found in Isaiah’s writings. He seems to have had the greatest vision of that coming event.
Well, today we’ve read one of those prophecies we find elsewhere. In this case we have these words of the great prophet Jeremiah. “Behold the days are coming when I shall raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king… In those days Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called, ‘The Lord is our righteousness’.”
I’d like you to keep that prophecy in mind as we look at this passage from Luke’s Gospel. This is the story that comes right after the birth narrative of Jesus. In fact it could be read as part of those events. And there’s a lot of Old Testament stuff going on here. This points to a lot of the customs and laws of God’s people from way back. And there are words of wonder and warning in both.
After I thought about this a while I thought it would make sense to include this 21st verse. This comes right after the shepherds had returned to their fields praising God. Luke starts a new paragraph with the word “And.” (Which we weren’t allowed to do when I was in school!) But this is part of the story. “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus…” Besides the physical change that was made, circumcision was also the “official naming ceremony.”
Then Luke continues. “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” Now he’s talking about the parents again. There was an ancient law about “purification after childbirth,” which we can find in Leviticus 12. If we turned to that chapter, we would find it telling us that if a woman bears a son, she shall be considered “unclean” for 7 days. And it describes that as the same kind of “unclean-ness” as when she had her monthly “thing.” Sorry ladies, but if you lived in that age, you couldn’t go to Church during “that time.”
Leviticus then goes on to tell us that after the time of the child’s circumcision, the woman is to continue for thirty-three days, as it says, “in the blood of her purifying.” I’m not sure exactly what that means. (And I’m not sure I really want to know!) But during that purification time, she is not allowed to touch any holy objects, or to come into the sanctuary. And that’s only if she has a male child! If she has a female child, her unclean-ness is not one week and thirty-three days, but two weeks and sixty-six days. (I don’t think I want to know why that is either!)
At any rate, doing the Math puts this story 41 days after Jesus’ birth, and Mary and Joseph have come to the Temple so that she could be declared “clean” again. And there’s a couple of interesting things about Luke’s presentation of that event. First, he tells us in verse 22 that they brought Jesus to present him to the Lord. And he quotes again the Law of Moses – this time from Exodus 13. “Every male child that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” Actually in saying that Luke is taking just a bit of liberty with that quote. That’s probably because he was writing to a patriarchal society, in which men were seen as more important than women. Sorry again, Ladies! (Aren’t you glad you live in this age?)
There’s a difference, though. If we turned to that passage in Exodus 13, we read this. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me all the first born. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both man and beast, is mine.’” (Exodus 13:1-2) We don’t know exactly why Luke quoted only part of that Law. It could be in that society that’s how they came to practice that Law. Or it could be that Luke only remembered part of the passage. Remember, Luke is a doctor, not a Bible Scholar!
Well, he then jumps back to this business of the “purification” and the sacrifice that was to be made for that. The first part verse 23 tells us, “they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” That was the “first born thing.” Then there’s this long explanation in parentheses – the quote from Exodus 13. And then the same sentence continues in verse 24, “And [they came] to offer a sacrifice according to what it said in the Law of the Lord.” And now we’re back to Leviticus again. I know it’s a little confusing here. But I want you to see this because it helps with the picture Luke is giving us of this young family. And here again, Luke is quoting only part of what it says in the Law.
In Leviticus it says that when a mother had completed her days of purification, “she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting – she can’t go in there yet! Remember, she’s not pure – a lamb a year old… and a young pigeon or turtledove… And [the priest] shall make atonement for her, then she shall be clean… ” Notice. “She shall bring a lamb!” But then a little farther down it says, “And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons…” That was apparently the case with Mary.
Now, why do I tell you all of this. I do so because I want you do get a clearer understanding of the picture Luke was trying to paint. This was a young couple coming to fulfill their religious duties. And it was likely a poor couple. They couldn’t afford the lamb for sacrifice. Early in this chapter they gave birth to their son in a stable. And even though that was more a matter of space than anything else, still it’s so fitting with this picture. We’re also told that Joseph was a carpenter. And history suggests that that was not a trade that brought much income in those days.
I think Luke does well in giving us a clear picture of the very humble beginnings of the life of the Messiah. It was out of the poorer class of people that the Savior came. And was that not reminiscent of David, from whose lineage the scripture tells us the Messiah would come? Remember, David was the shepherd boy that his father Jesse didn’t even bother to call in from the fields when the prophet Samuel came to find and anoint the new king of Israel!
As we see the picture here of the humble beginnings of the life of Jesus, I hope we see that in high contrast with the story we read today. Here we have this man Simeon, who came to Jesus’ presentation, took this humble, poor baby in his arms and declared what God had told him about what this baby would become! It was about this carpenter’s son that such words of wonder and warning were spoken! Can we even imagine this scene?!
Again, too often we read things in the Bible as though they were “scripted for the scriptures.” I believe we need to step back from that posture and see this scene for what it was! Here we have this man Simeon, and then the following account of the prophetess Anna, both of whom said incredible things about this baby, and about the “redemption of Israel.” Yet here they were talking about a child from a poor and humble family. That was who they were proclaiming as the Lord’s Messiah. If you were there, what would you have said?
The message today is that we often asked to make that same decision today. You see, the world today is asking the same questions about this humble baby. Can this child from a poor family born so long ago truly be the Lord’s Messiah? Can this one baby really make that much difference in the world today? Those questions are being asked today, and many people are answering them “No.”
We are being called on every day – and especially at this time of year – to answer those questions again. And we can no longer just say, “Yes, it’s true, because that’s what it says in the Bible.” Or “That’s what the preacher says.” The world may not trust those things! Each one of us are being called upon to answer a resounding “Yes.” “It is true!” “Yes! That humble little baby is the Lord’s Messiah!!”
That’s what I want you to think about as we go through this time after Christmas. Here we’ve read the story of what happened after that first Christmas. Here we’ve read how Simeon and then Anna completed the amazing picture of this poor, humble child. We have our job to do too. We are to take their place. We are to tell the world what we know about this little baby. Many are content with Christmas ending right there – in the manger. We must remember the prophets’ words of wonder and warning. We must declare the glory of God and his son Jesus, that tiny infant.
So, let us remember the last thing we’ll sing today. “Go tell it on the mountain.” After Christmas, that’s what’s left to do!
Eternal God, help us to remember in this humble story the glory of Christ our Lord. Inspire in us the whole story of Christmas including these to whom you gave the big picture so long ago. May our story be their story. For we pray these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.